Pelosi rises to speaker, firing first shots in era of divided US government
New House showcases younger, more diverse majority in staid corridors of the Capitol
Ebullient Democrats assumed control of the US House of Representatives on Thursday and elected Nancy Pelosi of California speaker, returning her to a historic distinction as the first woman to hold the post.
They then moved to defy President Donald Trump and passed bills that would open government agencies closed by an impasse over his insistence on funding for a border wall. Both measures are almost certain to die in the Senate.
On the first day of divided government in a reordered Washington, Pelosi, now second in line to the presidency, and Trump clashed from their respective ends of Pennsylvania Avenue almost from dawn until dusk.
The California Democrat began her day by suggesting that a sitting president could be indicted. Late in the day, Trump made an attention-getting appearance in the White House briefing room with a belligerent demand for a wall on the border with Mexico, drawing a rebuke from the newly installed House speaker, who said she would give no more than a dollar to fund what she branded “an immorality”.
In between, as the start of the new House showcased a younger and more diverse majority in the staid corridors of the Capitol, Pelosi pledged to run a “unifying” Congress that would bridge partisan divides and heal rifts in a polarised country.
“Our nation is at a historic moment,” she declared. “I pledge that this Congress will be transparent, bipartisan and unifying, that we will seek to reach across the aisle in this country, and across divisions across our nation.”
In ascending to the speakership, Pelosi finds herself at the fulcrum of a bitterly divided body politic, poised to do battle with and demand accountability from an increasingly combative Trump in ways the Republican Congress of the past two years refused to. With Trump, his presidential campaign and his businesses all under federal and state investigations, Pelosi’s approach to confronting him – both through investigation and legislation – will probably define the 116th Congress.
She wasted no time in doing so on Thursday, hours after being sworn in. The late-night, nearly party-line votes on reopening the government began a pattern in an era of divided control, with a Democratic House passing legislation that has no chance of being signed by the Republican president, and the Republican Senate running interference to protect Trump. The White House had also issued an official statement threatening a veto.
“Let’s not waste the time,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Trump used his abrupt appearance in the White House briefing room – his first since taking office – to talk about the importance of the wall; he was flanked by border agents who echoed his message.
The president congratulated Pelosi on her election and said he had high aspirations for the new Congress. But he turned immediately to making the case for a wall that Democrats have uniformly rejected, saying, “Without a wall, you cannot have border security.”
Trump also used social media to press his message, posting on his Instagram account a photograph of his face with the text “The Wall Is Coming”, a take on an advertisement for the cable TV series Game of Thrones that bore the ominous slogan “Winter Is Coming”.
As afternoon turned to evening and the votes to reopen the government approached, Pelosi told reporters sarcastically, in response to a question, that she would give him $1 – but only that – for the wall. “We’re not doing a wall,” Pelosi said sternly outside the House chamber. “Does anybody have any doubt that we’re not doing a wall? So that’s that.”
That capped a day that began with a warning shot to Trump, suggesting that a sitting president could be indicted. “I think that is an open discussion in terms of the law,” Pelosi said in an interview on NBC.
In a statement that served as a two-pronged warning, both to her left flank and to the president, she said the House would not move quickly to impeach Trump but would not shy away from doing so if it were warranted. “We have to wait and see what happens with the Mueller report,” Pelosi said, referring to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“We shouldn’t be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn’t avoid impeachment for a political reason. So we’ll just have to see how it comes,” she said.
By early afternoon, partisan politics were put aside, if only briefly, for a transition of power from Republicans to Democrats, as a majority of lawmakers rose in turn from their seats on the House floor to utter Pelosi’s name and formally award her the gavel she gave up in 2011.
‘Come on, kids!’
Pelosi ascended to the marble dais in the centre of the House chamber with Kevin McCarthy of California, the incoming Republican leader, who handed her the wooden gavel. “To the speaker of the House, Ms Pelosi,” he said, “I extend to you the gavel.”
The room erupted into applause as she held it aloft. Moments later, with a “Come on, kids!” Pelosi invited the children and grandchildren of representatives on the floor of the House to surround her as she took the oath of office, becoming the first person since Sam Rayburn more than 60 years ago to reclaim the speakership after losing it.
“I now call the House to order on behalf of all of America’s children,” Pelosi said after she was sworn in.
But despite the pledges of unity and a new bipartisan spirit, Pelosi managed some subtle swipes at the president and his party. At one point while discussing immigration, she quoted the late president Ronald Reagan. “He said, ‘If we ever close the door to new Americans, our leadership role in the world will soon be lost,’” Pelosi said, drawing a standing ovation from Democrats in the well of the House but grim-faced silence from most of those seated on the Republican side.
“You don’t applaud for Ronald Reagan?” she scoffed. The scene was strikingly different on the other side of the chamber, where some Democrats wore the traditional clothing of their communities – a Palestinian thobe, a Muslim hijab or headscarf, a Pueblo dress. It was a visual change in a chamber that has for centuries been overwhelmingly white and male.
As promised, Democrats approved bills intended to reopen the government and to remake rules of the House. One of the spending bills would fund most shuttered departments and agencies through to September 30th, and the other is a stopgap measure to restart the Department of Homeland Security for a few weeks.
Earlier, they approved a suite of new rules that will set the tone for their majority, including a measure – opposed by liberal members – to require that any policy mandating new funding be accompanied with corresponding tax increases or spending cuts. Another change would automatically raise the statutory limit on the national debt when the House approves a budget, avoiding politically difficult votes each time the ceiling is reached, which dogged Republicans and led to a series of fiscal cliffhangers during their years in the majority.
Also included were revisions to ensure that bipartisan proposals could be more easily considered, pushed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers billing themselves the Problem Solvers Caucus.
Pelosi’s election was not without dissent. Having spent more than 15 years at the helm of her party and been demonised by Republicans during the midterm congressional elections as the face of far-left radicalism, Pelosi (78), spent the weeks after Democrats won putting down a rebellion over her leadership in Democratic ranks and consolidating support through a combination of deal-cutting and cajoling.
She suffered more than a dozen defections: freshman representati es Anthony Brindisi of New York, Jason Crow of Colorado, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Ben McAdams of Utah, Max Rose of New York, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey and Jared Golden of Maine, as well as Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Ron Kind of Wisconsin, Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Kathleen Rice of New York.
Many of the newly-elected members had campaigned calling for change in Washington and for a new generation of leadership for their party, and had promised not to vote for Pelosi. As part of a final deal to shore up support, Pelosi agreed to limit her speakership to four years.
But two of the ringleaders of the squelched effort to depose Pelosi, . Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Tim Ryan of Ohio, ultimately voted for her. With her re-election, the biggest Republican “super Pac”, ie political fundraising committee – and the one that arguably tried hardest in 2018 to link Democratic candidates to Pelosi – practically celebrated.
“Democratic candidates spent the last two years promising voters that they’d be different – they wouldn’t stand for the same old leadership and the same old way of doing business in Washington,” the super Pac, the Congressional Leadership Fund, said in a statement. “Yet with the very first chance they got, they broke their word and their bond with the voters who elected them.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s House campaign arm, wasted no time in targeting Democrats in competitive districts who voted for Pelosi, sending voters in their districts texts immediately after the vote, saying that their representatives “are once again ignoring your voice”.
“Fight back NOW!” the texts read. The swift political broadsides drew condemnation from Pelosi’s team. “They threw everything but the kitchen sink at Nancy Pelosi, and her strategy powered by her fundraising turned 43 red seats blue,” said Drew Hammill, her spokesman. “They wasted tens of millions failing from coast to coast in a tired strategy that did nothing to save their majority.”
But amid that partisan acrimony, the spirit of a new generation of Democrats was in evidence in the well of the House. Several lawmakers bounced or rocked infants as they cast their votes for speaker, while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, at 29 the youngest person to be elected to the House, made a heart sign with her hands at loved ones in the House gallery above.
Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan voted for Pelosi for the “future of our children”, she said, while her own two children stood beside her. – New York Times